Infographic: All Dogs are Individuals
by Animal Farm Foundation
Normal. In a world where we’re all jockeying to stand out from the crowd, being normal gets a bad rap. We confuse normal with ordinary and boring.
Those of us that love, live with, and advocate for “pit bull” dogs naturally see our dogs as anything but ordinary. In our minds, “pit bull” dogs are uniquely adorable, lovable, and loyal. They’re extraordinary and the world needs to know it!
But here’s a secret: we don’t need anyone to view our dogs as special or different. In fact, seeing our dogs as different has led to all kinds of problems, like breed specific legislation.
Helping the public and policymakers understand that “pit bull” dogs are ordinary, normal dogs has always been the goal.
“Pit bull” dogs aren’t different or better than other dogs. They’re just dogs.
Equal. Average. Normal.
And when you think about it, being normal is a huge compliment!
Because that’s the wonderful thing about dogs. Just being a normal dog is pretty awesome.
Dogs are our best friends. They’re good for our physical health. They reduce our isolation and connect us with others. Some dogs don’t do much at all except sunbathe and drool. But even that makes our houses a little homier and our lives much richer.
As advocates, the best gift we can give “pit bull” dogs is to view them and communicate about them as being normal dogs. That’s why we’re no longer granting to “pit bull” dog specific programs. We’ve shifted our grant funding to programs that are inclusive, but not exclusive, to “pit bull” dogs. That means we won’t fund programs that single “pit bull” dogs out by excluding them or focusing solely on them. We insist they get fair treatment, which includes being treated equally:
Not better or different than other kinds of dogs.
Of course there are some pretty spectacular individual dogs out there doing things beyond the norm. For example, some dogs keep our communities safe. And others are our eyes, ears, and legs, helping us to navigate the world.
Individual dogs are all different. They fall all over the spectrum from heroes and helpers to dogs that are in trouble and in need of our help. But most dogs are hanging out in between the extremes. Just doing normal dogs stuff.
We created an entire campaign called The Majority Project that shows off how living with a “pit bull” dog is totally normal! Thousands and thousands of you shared a slice of your everyday lives with your dogs: watching TV, hanging out in the yard, cuddling with your kids, dressed up at the holidays, and all the other little ways “pit bull” dogs are a part of our normal lives. Nothing news-worthy, but the opportunity to be ordinary is really quite wonderful.
Of course each one of us has a special dog that is, no question about it, the best dog that ever lived. But overall, there’s nothing unique about “pit bull” dogs.
The only thing that, for now, still separates “pit bull” dogs from all the other dogs is…people. People and the problems we create for them by insisting that they are different and need special regulations and treatment. That’s what continues to be unique to “pit bull” dogs.
But the “pit bull” dogs themselves? They’re just ordinary dogs. And they’re patiently waiting for us humans to catch up and recognize this.
“Pit bull” dogs deserve to be cared for and celebrated, not because they are different or special or better than others dogs, but simply because they’re dogs.
And normal, ordinary dogs RULE!
In recent years, things have been looking up for the dogs we call “pit bulls” and their families. Breed specific legislation is on the way out. Shelters that discriminate against dogs based on appearance are the exception. The old wives tales that fueled canine discrimination have been debunked and dismissed.
Except for one: Some people are still perpetuating the myth that “pit bull” dogs bite differently than other dogs. Unfounded claims persist about the severity and nature of incidents involving “pit bull” dogs versus other types of dogs. Claims about the “unique damage that ‘pit bull’ dogs inflict” are made by individuals or special interest groups with no experience in analyzing dog bite-related injuries or knowledge of dog physiology or behavior.
Let’s bust this myth once and for all.
First, it must be understood that “pit bull” is not a breed. Attempts at legal definitions of what a “pit bull” is are outrageously inconsistent and no breed club or genetic definitions exist at all. Visual identification of dogs of unknown origin is also highly unreliable. Quite frankly, you don’t know a “pit bull” dog when you see one. It’s a highly subjective label with no agreed upon definition.
But even if you think you’re the exception (hint: you’re not) and know a “pit bull” dog when you see one, know this: research shows that breed is a very weak predictor of behavior in modern purebred dogs. Modern dogs are bred almost exclusively for appearance. If you think that two dogs who look identical will behave the same (including how and when they bite), you’ve shown a profound lack of sophistication in understanding dog breeding and genetics. Even cloned dogs – all the same DNA – don’t behave identically.
Yet some still insist we can predict how hard a dog will bite or what sort of damage he will do based on his physical appearance.
The result is false statements like: They don’t bite more often, but if a pit bull does bite, he’s far more likely to inflict serious injuries than most other breeds. Or, since their jaws are different than other dogs, they cause more damage when they do bite. And, they don’t inhibit their bites, so they may cause injury more often than other dogs. Or this tired myth, pound for pound pit bulls have the strongest jaws of any animal.
These statement are FALSE. They’re all baseless. No such claim has ever been demonstrated anywhere in the scientific literature!
And yet they are often repeated by medical authors and legislators who have no knowledge of dog behavior or even of the origin of these myths. Most of these ideas, in fact, can be traced back to the claims made to a reporter for the LA Times in 1980, by an individual identified only as “the dog fighter.”[i] One story has spawned decades of myths. Thanks a lot, Internet.
While it is widely observed among dog professionals that individual dogs vary in bite and fight “styles” (that is, when the dogs are upset enough to bite), there has been no academic study of this and certainly not with regard to breed differences. Even general conflict and self-defense behavior can’t be shown to vary according to breed, so it’s implausible in the extreme that a very specific subset of behavior, like duration of sustaining a bite, would have breed correlations.
Nor is there any credible data on bite injury severity by breed. Some reports by physicians make the claim that “pit bull” dogs are over-represented among severe injury cases, but all rely on visual breed identifications which research proves is unreliable. This is unsurprising, as the most comprehensive study to date of dog bite related fatalities has demonstrated that even in these intensely investigated cases, it is impossible to reliably identify the breed(s) of dog(s) involved in the vast majority of cases. [ii] Newspaper reporters, doctors, legislators, even so-called dog professionals continue to perpetuate these myths based on hearsay, hype, and unreliable information.
There are no facts to back up the oft-repeated claim that “pit bull” dogs bite differently or cause more damage than other dogs.
Wildly varying claims are also made regarding the potential closing pressure of dogs’ jaws. The results of the handful of studies that have looked at this are ambiguous at best.
What is clear is that no scientist has ever found anything even remotely close to the ridiculous claim that “pit bull” jaws have the capacity to bite with 2700 psi. Never.
The research that does exist is an offshoot of studies of other species, mainly attempts to determine how much force an animal may be able to apply in eating his food. Across species, the general finding is that the pressure available matches what’s needed for the particular food available. Along these lines, a few scientists have attempted to measure potential jaw force in dogs. Neither of the two study groups that specify breeds include any dogs identified as “pit bulls.”
So any bite force claim regarding “pit bull” dogs is simply made up, or perhaps the product of some unscientific backyard “experiment” reminiscent of the shadowy figure of “the dog fighter,” to whom so much of this mythology can be attributed.
The actual findings that do exist among dogs in general can range from 13 to 1394 Newtons. “Newtons,” a way to quantify force, is the unit of measure consistently used in such studies, not pounds per square inch, a measure of pressure which no studies use.
Stick with us here: Four different methods of studying jaw force have been tried. One method has been to perform a geometric analysis of potential leverage based on the top and bottom jaw structures.[iii],[iv] A second method has been to electrically stimulate the jaw muscles of anesthetized dogs to close, focusing on various muscle groups.[v] This yields the highest numbers, presumably because unconsciousness renders a dog less concerned about breaking his teeth or even his actual jaw bones. These two methods attempt to measure how much pressure a dog would have at his disposal should he choose to use maximum force, which no one in behavior, by the way, thinks dogs normally do in conflict situations. A third method involves hooking up electrodes to the jaw muscles of a dog chewing a bone.[vi] And finally, a device called a transducer has been contrived to sense the force exerted on a chew object offered to a dog.[vii]
Some of these have been applied to compare potential jaw pressure of varying sizes and skull shapes. These four different methods yield different results. The anesthetized dog method, for example, has found that bite force increases if not proportionately, at least significantly, with the size of the dog and with shorter jaws and wider skulls in medium and large dogs. Other studies don’t find this.
Among the few studies that specify breeds of the subjects, one tested two Rottweilers of similar size: one dog bit down on the rawhide covered “transducer” with more than three times the force of the other.[viii] There has even been a rather silly attempt to loosely apply this study technique for the entertainment of television audiences, by putting a pressure sensing device into a heavy Kevlar sleeve which the handler then entices three dogs of different breeds to grab onto and shake as if his arm were a tug toy, without any way of knowing what part of the object was being borne down on, which teeth were being brought to bear (real studies always distinguish between pressure from molars and canines) or even the effect of the varying weights of the dogs on how much pressure they would need to hang on. In this case, it was solemnly concluded that the “pit bull’s” jaw pressure was less than that of the German Shepherd Dog or the Rottweiler, but this finding renders the “experiment” no less foolish.
But not one single study backs up the bite force claims about dogs that are constantly cited in media, ordinances, and sloppy scholarship in studies of dog bite injuries. NOT ONE.
All dogs, of any breed, mix, or size, with teeth have the ability to significantly harm us if they choose to do so. They very seldom do. Conflicts between dogs and people are highly ritualized, at least from the dog’s side. In other words, dogs typically “pull their punches,” even when trying to influence our behavior by using their teeth. The technical term for this is acquired bite inhibition (ABI). No one believes that this learned behavior is in any way breed specific.
Finally, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) exhaustive review of dog bite studies conducted in North America and elsewhere has concluded that, “Serious bites occur due to a range of factors,” and that separate regulation based on breed is not a basis for preventing such dog bites.
To put it simply:
No dog is biologically equipped with a unique jaw structure, locking mechanism, biting mechanism or “style” that would differentiate them from other breeds of dogs.
No scientific research exists to substantiate the myth that “pit bull” dogs bite differently or more severely.
It’s time to put an end to this last myth.
Resources regarding effective approaches to reducing dog bite-related incidents can be found here.
[i] “Prosecutors win convictions in tough area: pit bull fighting,” Los Angeles Times, March 28, 1982
[ii] Patronek, et.al. 2013. Co-occurrence of potentially preventable factors in 256 dog bite-related fatalities in the United States (2000-2009). Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 243 (12), 1726-1736.
[iii] Ellis, JL, et.al. (2008). Calibration of estimated biting forces in domestic canids: comparison of post-mortem and in vivo measurements. Journal of Anatomy 212. 769-780
[iv] Ellis JL, et.al. (2009). Cranial dimensions and forces of biting in the domestic dog. Journal of Anatomy 214. 362-373.
[v] Ellis, 2008.
[vi] Dessem, D. et.al, (1988) Interactions between jaw-muscle recruitment and jaw-joint forces in Canis familiaris. Journal of Anatomy 164, 101-121
[vii] Lindner, DL, et.al. (1995). Measurement of bite force: A pilot study. Journal of Veterinary Dentistry 12. 49-52.
Guest post written by Kristen Auerbach, Interim Director of Fairfax County Animal Shelter in Fairfax, Virginia.
About a month ago, Fairfax County Animal Shelter removed all breed labels from our adoption kennels. There was much discussion and debate prior to us making this decision. Would the public be confused? Angry? Would community members protest?
We were committed to being honest with potential adopters. If the dog they were interested in might be visually identified as a breed that faces restriction, we would make them aware that breed specific laws or housing rules could affect them.
But was that enough? Would taking breed labels off our kennels prove too disruptive to serve our purpose?
To our surprise, no one even asked why the kennel cards weren’t labeled with breeds.
We also learned that no matter what the kennel card says, potential adopters, volunteers and staff will make guesses. And they’re usually going to disagree with each other about those guesses.
We did notice an increase in people asking us about the breed of a particular dog. This turned out to be a good thing. The question provides the perfect opening for a staff person or volunteer to talk about the inaccuracy of breed labeling and the importance of getting to know each dog as an individual with its own unique personality traits.
Now that we’ve removed the labels from the kennel cards, we’ll be working with our shelter software system to remove the breed labels from our ‘adoptable’ pets list so dogs will be described only with their names, ages and personality profiles.
Our journey to do away with breed labels began about a year ago, when we stopped referring to dogs as ‘pit bulls’ or ‘Staffordshire terriers’ on our social media platforms. Between 2013 and 2014, adoptions of dogs visually identified as ‘pit bulls’ quadrupled and we knew we were on to something big. We talked about the individual dog’s personality, quirks, sociability with other dogs and people, but we stopped talking about breed.
We did this because we know the term ‘pit bull’ does not describe any breed of dog. Rather, it’s a subjective label that means different things to different people and has no basis in science or genetics. In our mission to get our adopters to see the dog not the label, and in the interest of full disclosure, the most honest thing we could do when describing our dogs was to simply say, “We don’t know what the breed or breed mix is.”
Things got a little more complicated when we stopped labeling all dogs, because we would all stand in front of a dog, and a staff member would say, “That IS a purebred Dachshund” or Rottweiler or whatever they thought it was. But, we asserted, the vast majority of dogs in our shelter are of mixed breed heritage and unless we have indisputable proof a dog came from a breeder and has a documented pedigree, we don’t know for sure. And even then, how does a breed label, any breed label help a dog get a home?
People are going to make their own visual breed identification whether it’s written on a kennel card or not. It simply isn’t necessary nor is it honest for us to present our guesses of any breed as if they are fact.
At our shelter, we’re having a lot of success focusing on the dog, not the perceived breed. But each animal welfare organization has its own challenges and in some places, not labeling is impossible because of breed specific legislation or breed-based adoption restrictions. What then?
It’s up to us, as advocates, no matter what our particular situation, to start explaining to people that breed labels are subjective, not based in science and that when we, as animal welfare professionals guess, we guess wrong at least 50% and often 75% of the time. We should be telling people that the vast majority of dogs in our shelters are mutts or mixed breeds and that the way they look says nothing reliable about their behavior.
If you are at a shelter or rescue where putting an end to breed labeling is a possibility, consider trying the following and tracking the results. You may be surprised at the immediate changes in your adoption numbers.
1. Stop using breed labels in social media posts. In some cases, a breed label gives your followers a quick reason to say no and keep scrolling. Instead, for a week, just tell the story of each particular dog. People love stories and it helps them connect with dogs they otherwise might be drawn to.
2. Remove the breed labels from your kennel cards for one week and see what happens. Make sure to spread the word to volunteers and staff so you can be on the same page with potential adopters.
3. Ask your shelter software provider if they can remove breed labels from adoptable dogs online. We use a provider that is able to remove the public labels on adoptable dogs (even though they will not remove the breed labels entirely).
4. Role play with staff and volunteers about how to respond when a visitor says, “What breed is it?” Not sure what to say? The truth works: “We’re not sure! The vast majority of our dogs are of mixed-breed origin and when we guess we are often wrong.”
5. It’s human nature to put things into categories and most of us label dogs by breed, even if it’s for a purely functional reason, like asking someone to, “Go adopt that Maltese.” Challenge yourself and your colleagues to find non-breed descriptors for your dogs.
It takes a lot of practice to break the breed labeling habit, but you can do it!
And for more on Fairfax County Animal Shelter’s progressive and effective adoption policies, please see No Restrictions, Just Success.
It is the mission of Animal Farm Foundation to secure equal treatment and opportunity for “pit bull” dogs and in an effort to meet that mission, Animal Farm Foundation has formed a collaboration with Austin Pets Alive! and Universal K9 so that rescued and sheltered “pit bull” dogs can be considered for Detection Dog work, which is traditionally reserved for pure bred, purpose bred dogs.
Potential detection dog candidates are selected from the Austin Pets Alive! shelter system to participate in training led by Universal K9, located in San Antonio, Texas. Once there, Brad Croft founder of Universal K9, trains and places the dogs in police departments around the country at no charge. Animal Farm Foundation provides a sponsorship to Universal K9 to help cover the costs of the officer training. We recently had the chance to ask Brad a few questions about the program.
AFF: What are some of the things you train the dogs to do?
Brad: Universal K9 trains dogs for narcotics, explosives, cadaver, and arson detection. We also train dogs to track for criminal apprehension and have trained dogs for vapor detection as well.
Can you tell our readers about the partnership between Universal K9 and Austin Pets Alive? When did you first get the idea to assess shelter dogs at APA! for your program?
I reached out to APA! and other local shelters about three years ago letting them know that I was seeking high drive dogs. Mike Kaviani, the Dog Behavior Program Manager at APA!, responded and I went out to test a few of their dogs. The ones I choose were all “pit bull” dogs. It can be challenging to place dogs that are labeled as “pit bulls” or “pit bull mixes,” because of misconceptions and prejudices, but I was able to find a couple of police departments early on that were open minded and I was able to place the dogs.
Has the response from police departments to “pit bull” detection dogs changed over the past 3 years? Are they more willing to accept them?
Many are still reluctant. But the sponsorship through AFF is helping to open some minds to the possibility of accepting a “pit bull” dog into their department.
What qualities are you looking for in a detection dog? If you transfer a dog from APA! for training, but it turns out they’re not a good fit, what happens to the dogs?
I look for dogs who are high drive, confident, and curious. If they’re strongly motivated by toys, that’s a plus. The dogs that don’t make it into the program are adopted out through us or APA!
It seems there is a common misconception by both the public and the working dog industry that dogs can’t be working K9s unless they are a specific breed or bred for the purpose of law enforcement work. In your experience, have you found that shelter dogs are just as capable of doing the work?
Any dog that has the drive, confidence, and desire to work can do it! Breed does not dictate a dog’s ability to work. I personally have a mutt – I have no idea what breed mix she is – but she is the best working dog I have ever come across! She can find narcotics and track people better than any “typical” police dog I’ve ever seen.
How many “pit bull” dogs have you placed with law enforcement? Can you tell us about one or two of these placements and the work they’re currently doing in their communities?
At this point we’ve trained and placed about 10 “pit bull” dogs with law enforcement agencies around the country. There are two dogs that really stand out right now.
K9 Libby with the Montgomery County, TX Constables was recently featured in People Magazine and has been dubbed “The World’s Raddest Police Dog” across social media for her work. K9 Ruby with the Chattahoochee Hills Police Department in GA made her first bust this month. Both dogs have their own Facebook pages and have lots of fans cheering them on!
Both are performing very well and making a huge difference in the communities in which they serve. It’s really awesome and I’m very happy to be a small part of it.
Thank you Brad for being much more than a small part in this important work!
To learn more about the detection dog program, please visit our website.
In May of 2015, Animal Farm Foundation transported 6 “pit bull” dogs from Prince George’s County in Maryland to our shelter in New York. The dogs are well behaved, friendly, play well with other dogs, and are healthy. So why did they need to be transported 300+ miles instead of being adopted out of their Maryland shelter?
Because they live in a county that still has an archaic breed ban in place. These dogs, all of varying appearances, behaviors, and breed mixes, were all perceived to be “pit bull” dogs and are therefore illegal in Prince George’s County. This means they cannot be adopted out of shelters. There are only two outcomes for these dogs: death or transport to a safe jurisdiction.
Prince George’s County’s animal services staff work hard to arrange the latter outcome. Each day numerous dogs subjectively identified at “pit bulls” are brought into their shelter. None of them are allowed on the adoption floor. Many are dogs that were loved family pets taken straight from their homes. They were seized not because they did anything wrong, but simply because of their appearance or breed label. Now these family pets are wards of the system.
The staff spends their time and resources making sure that these family dogs have a chance at a fair and humane outcome – adoption – by arranging transports around the country. AFF recently sponsored Aimee Sadler’s Dogs Playing For Life! training for the staff to help them enrich the lives of the dogs in their care and to assist in identifying transport candidates.
During her recent training, Sadler wasn’t surprised to see that there were many “pit bull” dogs that were “rock stars” in the play groups. Calls went out to shelters around the region to help get these highly adoptable dogs out of danger and into adoption programs. AFF and Fairfax County Animal Shelter were two of the organizations that pulled numerous dogs after seeing Sadler’s play group footage.
Rodney Taylor, the director of Prince George’s County’s animal services facility, publicly opposes the ban for many reasons. The Huffington Post reports that the shelter has a “live release rate” of only 64 percent. This is not a reflection on the shelter’s policies or approach to adoptions. The high euthanasia rate is largely due to the law that bans them from adopting out any dog that is labeled a “pit bull.” The euthanasia rate would be even higher, if the staff didn’t work so hard to make transports a daily reality.
But until the ban is removed by lawmakers or struck down in court, the shelter will be stuck with a live release rate that falls far short of what progressive adoption centers, in areas without breed bans, are attaining. As Rodney told Huff Post, “Such beautiful dogs come in and we can’t adopt them to families that want to adopt them.”
There are no facts or experts to back up the retention of this ineffective, inhumane law. In 2003, Prince George’s County authorized a task force to examine the results of their ban, in place since 1996. The Task Force reported that the ban was ineffective, has a negative impact on public safety, stretches animal control and sheltering resources thin, and costs approximately a half million dollars a year to enforce. That’s right, a half million a year.
In the fiscal year 2001-2002, costs due to “pit bull” dog confiscations totaled $560,000. And that doesn’t even touch the amount of money needed to cover the expenses for utilities, manpower, and overtime spent caring for the dogs. You can read the full report here.
Of course, that was 14 years ago. If we do some simple math and assume that the numbers remain the same, that’s $560,000 a year multiplied by 14 years, which means the current total spent enforcing a ban that doesn’t work could potentially be estimated at: $7,840,000.
The tax payers are footing this enormous bill for a law that does not increase public safety. Tax payers are footing the bill for a law that tears innocent dogs away from loving families. And they’re paying for a law that strains their shelter system and animal control services by misdirecting their time and resources to addressing a crisis that need not exist.
What’s the alternative?
If the breed ban was repealed, that money could be used to enforce effective breed neutral dangerous dog laws. The very ones the 2003 Task Force recommended. Animal control would no longer need to waste their time seizing safe family pets and instead could focus on addressing problem dog owners (of any breed) thereby truly making the county safe for all of its citizens. Animal services wouldn’t have to make kennel space for loved dogs freshly torn away from their families. And instead they could use their time and resources to do what shelters are meant to do: help the dogs that are truly homeless, evaluating them as individuals, and finding them new families within their county.
In 2009, after the shelter spent 12 million to build a new shelter, Taylor stated that, “There’s one goal: to become the number one shelter in the nation.” Six years later, with a 64% live release rate and the breed ban still being in effect, Prince George’s County animal services is lagging far behind other shelters nationwide. No matter how hard they work, the ban prevents them from ever being able to achieve their goal.
The breed ban in Prince George’s County is an ineffective and expensive mistake. It is time-consuming and nearly impossible to enforce. It is incompatible with progressive animal sheltering policies. It perpetuates myths, hysteria and fear. It suggests we can accurately identify a dog’s breed based on their looks and that a dog’s breed is an accurate predictor of behavior. And, because of all of this, the ban jeopardizes everyone’s safety by misdirecting money, resources, and time.
Breed Specific Legislation denies every resident of Prince George’s County the opportunity to live in a safe, humane community.
When will lawmakers listen to the task force recommendations, given more than a decade ago, and finally remove this failed legislation? When will they free up those wasted millions of dollars to fund breed neutral laws that are proven to keep communities safe? Change must happen now. There’s no more time or money to waste for the families of Prince George’s County.
The following is an updated version of a blog posted in 2013.
In 2015, we’re still being asked: What role should breed – breed identification and breed labeling – play in today’s animal shelters?
Thanks to years of research we all know about the inaccuracy of breed labeling based on visual inspection, so perhaps the question should be: Why aren’t more shelters removing breed labeling?
In 2014, Orange County Animal Services (OCAS) in Florida, removed breed labels from its kennel cards and website. A year later OCAS, a municipal shelter, has seen an increase in adoptions. The same goes for Capital Area Humane Society in Lansing, Michigan where breed was removed from their kennel cards. Instead the cards focus on sharing information about the individual dog. Progressive shelters can and do remove breed labels…without any backlash from the public.
But why bother?
Because too many dogs are mislabeled with inaccurate guesses, too many assumptions and predictions about behavior are made based on behavior traits associated with the assigned breed label, and too many dogs are unfairly penalized for the breed label they’re given. Shelters need to recognize and work to counter this.
When shelters label dogs of unknown origin they are making a guess. But that’s not how adopters interpret the label. They perceive the breed label as fact. And in our society, we still equate breed label with implied behavior. So adopters are being (unintentionally) mislead into thinking that the label means something about the dog’s behavior. But that just isn’t the case. Our guesses at breed label are not accurate predictors of anything.
Shelters can and should be more clear with the public, so that our guesses at breed are not interpreted as accurate predictors of behavior.
We also know that the context in which we present dogs to the public shapes how they are perceived, this includes breed label and setting. In Lisa Gunter’s 2012 study, it was confirmed that the setting in which we view dogs – in particular, who is standing next to them – can dramatically influence how people perceive the dogs. So the context in which we view all dogs (not just “pit bull” dogs), shapes how potential adopters perceive the dogs.
Our job is to help the public see the dog that’s right in front of them.
That means helping them see the individual dog, free of prejudice, stereotypes, and assumptions that are based on a known pedigree, a breed label guess, physical appearance, or their past history.
While some shelters continue to guess at breeds or sink resources into DNA testing their dogs (note that even a DNA test on a mixed breed dog doesn’t predict behavior), the sustainable solution isn’t that we need to get better or work harder at identifying breeds or breed labeling the dogs. It’s to focus on seeing all dogs as individuals.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
It can be a challenge for all of us to think outside the breed box, so we’d like to address some common questions and concerns. Here are our most frequently asked questions regarding breed and breed traits in animal shelters:
Isn’t it important to know a dog’s breed, so we can share their breed traits and then adopters will know what to expect? Aren’t breed traits just more information to share with adopters?
Breed traits most certainly exist. However, how breed traits present themselves in dogs, particularly in mixed breed dogs of unknown origins (the majority of dogs found in our shelter system), varies tremendously. Therefore, a guess at how a breed trait may or may not manifest itself in a dog is not nearly as reliable as the information shelters can gather by observing the dogs in their care. If you observe breed traits, share them with the adopter. If you don’t observe them, don’t assume they’re there.
Please note that breed traits don’t apply to mixed breed dogs. Mixed breed dogs are not any breed of dog at all. Pure breed dogs are bred from closed gene pools. Mixed breed dogs are not from closed or coherent gene pools and cannot be considered a member of any breed. They have more in common genetically with ALL dogs, then any one breed in particular.
And remember that breed is just one part of any individual dog – as is their socialization, training, genetics, environment, etc. Traits related to breed are not the whole dog. The whole dog is the individual. Breed traits are a just a possible slice of the pie.
No matter what a dog’s breed or mix may be, when we give equal or more weight to breed traits, rather than focusing on what we’ve observed about a dog’s individual needs, we can hinder their chances at a successful match. Get to know the whole dog.
When dogs are improperly identified, do we cause problems for the adopters and/or the dogs? Will adopters think we’re trying pass off “pit bull” dogs as other breeds and stop trusting us?
We believe that honesty is the best policy. The majority of dogs in shelters are mixed breed dogs. Research tells us that visual identification of mixed breed dogs is highly inaccurate. Unless you know what a dog’s breed mix is for sure – you know the parents or have paperwork – speculating about the possible breed mix is just a guess.
If you wish to be 100% completely honest with your adopters, tell them the truth: you aren’t sure what the breed mix might be. Most importantly, tell them the truth about the dog’s actual behavior based on your observations and evaluations. Remember, people are adopting a DOG, not a breed. How that dog behaves is the key to a good match for potential adopters.
If the adopters notice physical markings or certain behaviors that lead them to believe a dog might be a certain breed (for example: a black mark on the dog’s tongue has them guessing he might be a Chow mix), be honest in your response by acknowledging that it is a possibility. Here’s an example of how you might respond: “Yes, it is possible this dog might have some Chow in there, though we don’t know for sure. How do you feel about that? Would that be ok with your landlord?”
If you’re concerned about someone else (an insurance company, Animal Control, etc.) identifying the dog as a “pit bull”, let the adopters know this is a possibility and determine how that may affect them legally. Be aware of any potential breed restrictions in your community and give resources to educate your adopters about these realities.
Share what you know for sure and be clear about what’s a guess. They will appreciate your honesty.
Lots of the dogs we see have the characteristics of a “pit bull”, so shouldn’t they be identified as a pit bull or pit mix?
To begin with, there is no agreed upon or standard definition of a “pit bull.” The phrase “pit bull” means something different to everyone and varies from one shelter to the next. So, the use of that label, “pit bull” is subjective – it’s an opinion, not a breed or a fact.
If all you have is a visual inspection and no pedigree, then you’re guessing at a dog’s breed or breed mix when you choose to label them as “pit bulls”. You can label the dogs however you choose, but be careful not to make behavior predictions based on this guess and don’t imply to adopters that a label accurately indicates anything about a dog’s suitability for adoption or what kind of home he needs.
The label doesn’t change the dog, but often the labels will change how we perceive the dog.
Each dog is an individual. Help adopters to see past labels and get to know the dog’s actual pet qualities.
Should we DNA test the dogs in our shelter to find out?
No, we do not recommend that shelters give their dogs DNA tests to determine its breed or breed mix. Dog behavior is a complex mix of nature and nurture and knowing a dog’s DNA is only one piece of the puzzle. It’s just another tool in the toolbox. Shelters are in the business of adopting out companion animals and the only way to know if a dog is going to be a good companion is to get to know that individual dog. Shelters are better off spending their time and money getting to know the dogs in their care.
We want to call our dogs of unknown origins “mixed breed” or “American Shelter Dogs”, but the shelter software doesn’t give us that option. How should we label the dogs?
You may be forced to pick a primary breed in shelter software, but you can make other notes on their profiles that explain that this is just a guess. We use this language on Petfinder:
The petfinder.com system requires that we choose a predominant breed or breed mix for our dogs. Visual breed identification in dogs is unreliable so for most of the dogs we are only guessing at predominant breed or breed mix. We get to know each dog as an individual and will do our best to describe each of our dogs based on personality, not by breed label.
Feel free to copy and use it! We even have free posters and kennel cards with this info to help get the conversation going with adopters.
In 2015 Hillsborough County Animal Services Pet Resource Center in Florida created large, weather-proof banners with this information to help adopters understand that the labels they see are just guesses.
In the past, we thought that we needed to get better at breed labeling dogs, but Dr. Voith’s research showed us that we cannot get better at it. And Dr. Marder and Janis Bradley taught us that there is behavior variability within each breed, and even more among breed mixes, so that we cannot predict a dog’s behavior based on breed alone.
It’s clear that rather than trying to get better at guessing dog breed labels, the focus should be on gathering information about each individual dog as a whole. If shelters do choose to breed label dogs, they must make it clear to the public that they cannot accurately predict future behaviors based on those labels.
Put the focus on getting to know the dogs. What we discover about a dog’s personality will be far more valuable to adopters than any label.
Here at Animal Farm Foundation our grants program is constantly evolving to keep up with the changing needs in animal welfare. Where in the past we funded exclusively to “pit bull” specific programs, today our focus has shifted towards granting to programs that are inclusive of “pit bull” dogs, but are not exclusive to them. This approach reflects the many changes in animal welfare we’ve been a part of over the past two decades.
Today, programs that treat all dogs as individuals are the path to a better future for ALL dogs. One of the types of programs we’re most happy to see are ones in which a safety net is created for all pets within the community through the offering of a variety of owner support services.
Pit Sisters, one of grant award recipients, is doing just that! Their unique pilot program, Mobile Training, is offered in targeted areas of Jacksonville, FL where the highest rate of pet surrenders are generated from. Their Mobile Training Program provides dog training at no cost to the owners, so that families can keep their dogs at home, where they are wanted and loved, rather than surrendering them due to training issues.
We had the chance to talk with Jennifer Deane, founder of Pit Sisters, about their program.
AFF: Can you tell our readers about how the mobile training program works?
Pit Sisters: We work in partnership with two of our local shelters to determine the areas of town to focus in. We target the areas that have the highest numbers of dogs turned in to the shelters and we offer free training for families and their dogs. We constructed a book of training tips in conjunction with several area training experts that are easy to use and have lots of ideas for inexpensive solutions, including a treat suggestion sheet and toy suggestion sheet using everyday items.
Why did Pit Sisters decide to focus on supporting this particular area (dog training) of the human-canine bond in your community?
We decided to focus on training because we were receiving lots of emails from families who wanted to keep their dogs, but the dogs needed training. Hiring a trainer can be expensive and we know how important building the bond between the family and the family dog(s) is, so we decided to focus on training. There are no programs like ours in our community, so we felt that we could fill a gap with a much-needed service.
Your program does a great job of viewing all dogs and their families as individuals – no stereotypes or judgement allowed! Instead, you focus on getting to know their individual needs, so you can better address whatever issues might be barriers to the dogs staying in their homes.
How has that approach been helpful for you and your clients? Can you share how you’ve built trust between your program/trainers and the community you’re serving?
Building trust has been the most challenging part and we continue to work on that. I think what helps a lot is our partnerships with our local shelters and other animal welfare organizations, as well as local businesses. They help us to get the word out by distributing information and telling people about the program. One of the low cost animal clinics even gave us coupons for a free office visit for participants in our program. This is approach works incredibly well. All of our trainers have caring, nonjudgmental attitudes, and as such are well received by the community.
Can you share a success story with us?
Sure! We had a family with two dogs come to us – one of the dogs was highly reactive to other dogs and the other had separation anxiety. When we met the owners they were frustrated and didn’t know what to do. And they couldn’t afford to pay a trainer. Because of our program, they were able to get the help they needed. Our mobile trainer gave them advice and worked with both dogs. We met with the family for quite a bit and watched them practice the techniques that we taught them and then we followed up with them to see how things were going. The dogs are doing much better and the family is volunteering with us now as well!
If someone wanted to start a similar program in their community, what advice would you give them?
Form strong relationships with your local animal shelters and animal welfare organizations! Pit Sisters would like to help others start similar programs, so we’re willing to talk to anyone who may be interested in starting their own program. They can email us at email@example.com for more information.
Thank you for talking with us Jen and for the great work you’re doing in your community! For more information about Pit Sisters, please visit their website. And for information about our Grants program, please visit the Animal Farm Foundation site.
Last year we had the privilege of working with the staff at Capital Area Humane Society in Lansing, Michigan. In addition to sending staff members to our internships, CAHS also welcomed AFF to visit their shelter and provide more hands-on training.
We recently received an update from two staff members – Samantha Miller, Behavior Manager and Ashley Hetzner, Behavior Assistant – about the incredible progress that CAHS has made in the past year. Not only have they dropped all breed restrictions, but they’ve increased adoptions as well!
We asked Samantha and Ashley to tell us more about the big changes (and big successes) they’ve undergone recently:
AFF: Prior to now, were there any specific policies or restrictions that applied to the “pit bull” dog adoptions at CAHS?
CAHS: Yes, we had several policies that applied only to pit bulls.
1. We had a limit to the number of pit bulls that we could have up for adoption. No more than 20% of our adult dog population could be pit bull dogs.
2. All of our dogs go through a behavior evaluation process, but pit bulls had to go through extra steps. For a while we used an “ambassador dog” evaluation. But even after stopping that type of extra evaluation, pit bulls still had to test better than other dogs in order to go up for adoption. Certain behaviors meant automatic euthanasia only for pit bulls: dog aggression on leash, food/resource guarding, fear, aggression toward cats, or any type of aggressive-looking behaviors in the kennel (growling, lunging, showing teeth), to name a few. Other types of dogs could get away with the same behaviors.
3. Potential adopters had to fill out extra paperwork to be considered for a pit bull. There couldn’t be any concerns about their application. They had to be over 21 years old. They could not have any intact dogs in the home. They were required to bring in their children and dogs to meet the new dog (which was not always required for other dogs – although we eventually moved to requiring dog/child meets for all dogs). At one point we required the other dog in the home to be opposite sex.
4. We would occasionally make exceptions about landlord checks or other policies, but never for pit bulls.
5. After going through the extra paperwork, it was required to be approved by a supervisor. After that, a member of the behavior department would come and do a “pit bull consult” which went over dog aggression, dog parks, myths and stereotypes about pit bulls, how and why to get CGC certified/become a breed ambassador, and how they would have to be better dog owners than anyone else to make up for the stigma facing their dog.
6. We offered a free behavior consult with our staff for anyone adopting a pit bull that was having issues in the home.
7. All pit bulls were microchipped automatically. Other dogs were only microchipped if the adopter asked for it.
How did these additional layers to the adoption process affect adopter’s perceptions of the “pit bull” dogs?
At the time we didn’t think it would affect their perception of the dogs! We figured if someone wanted a pit bull, they would understand that we felt we had a duty to protect them. Every once in awhile we would get a comment from someone supporting our policies, so that made us think we were on the right track.
We would say things like “pit bulls are no different than other dogs, but [then we would have different standards for adoption]…” and we thought just saying that made up for all the other things we were doing that implied pit bulls are different. Even after going to AFF a lot of the staff was skeptical.
However, since making changes we have come to realize what we were really saying to people who came to adopt a pit bull.
We have had many adopters who came back to us for a second dog, comment on how much faster, easier, and less intense our adoption process is now. We had one family that adopted a pit bull from us a year ago. They were so scared by what we had told them that they had never introduced their dog to another dog in case he was aggressive. They were nervous to bring him in for a meet-and-greet with the new dog for the same reason. The family asked questions like “we have to do x, y, and z because it’s a pit bull, right?”
They learned that nonsense from us! That really sealed it for me personally what a disservice we had done for these dogs for so long.
Our culture at the shelter has shifted toward one of understanding, acceptance, and open-mindedness.
CAHS has made a lot of changes in the past year. For example, you recently dropped a variety of restrictions on all adoptions, such as requiring mandatory dog intros. Can you tell us more about those changes?
The past year has been really exciting and honestly a little scary – we have made so many changes. What I think is the most important change is that we stopped discriminating against pit bulls both in our behavior evaluation and our adoption process. There are no more requirements for them to pass our behavior evaluation than any other dog. We have since had pit bulls up for adoption with fear issues, dog selectivity, cat aggression, resource guarding, and imperfect kennel behavior.
We stopped using the phrase “this dog has x, y, and z behavior issues, and he’s a pit bull.” Being labeled a “pit bull” is no longer considered Strike 1 for the dogs that are in our care.
On the adoptions side of things, we did away with the pit bull consult and the extra set of questions for people wanting to adopt pit bull types. We no longer require anything extra from those adopters compared to those who choose other types of dog to adopt. We dropped mandatory landlord checks, parent approval for adopters under 21, vet references, and child/dog intros. We still have these tools available when we feel they are warranted, but not as a blanket policy.
After Caitlin Quinn, AFF’s Director of Operations, came to our shelter and we started making changes for pit bulls, we began to question some of the other policies we had had for years. We came to the conclusion that we had been behind the times not just when it came to pit bulls, and we were able to implement changes to other areas as well.
How did the restrictions directly affect adoptions? Have you seen an increase in adoptions since they were removed?
Adoptions have increased. 2014 had just under 14% more adoptions than the previous year. We had our all time highest adoption month in October, and our all time highest adoption day in December during our annual holiday open house. We did 120 adoptions in one day, which is huge for us. Compare that to the previous year’s holiday open house where we did 25 adoptions.
Had we been requiring landlord checks, dog/child/cat intros, address verification, parent checks, vet references, etc. we wouldn’t have had enough time in the day to do 120 adoptions. The big worry was that we would get an influx of returns after dropping so many requirements, and we really haven’t seen that.
You also made some changes to your kennel cards – they no longer list the breed of dog. Can you tell us more about your approach?
We tried to make our kennel cards easier to read, and give people more information about the individual dog they are looking at. So we have things like energy level, how they might do with kids, cats, and dogs, if they’re housebroken, where they came from, etc.
If someone wants to know what our breed guess is, they can ask the front desk. That way, when we’re telling them what breeds we did guess, we can also have the conversation about breed identification and why looks don’t predict behavior.
How have adopters responded to the change in kennel cards?
Before the new kennel cards debuted, we had several meetings and staff training sessions to prepare everyone for what to say when people asked about the breed. We figured there would be a ton of questions from people wondering why we omitted it from the kennel card, and frustrations about that. So we put them up after the holiday open house when our kennels were pretty empty to limit the outcry.
It all sounds so silly now, because the response ended up being basically no response.
We get occasional questions, but people are generally satisfied when we explain why we don’t know what breed most of our dogs are. Of course we will occasionally get that one person who demands we tell them the breed or thinks we’re trying to hide something, but it has been rare!
Thank you Ashley and the rest of CAHS for taking the time to share their experiences and what they’ve learned.
We congratulate CAHS for all of their success – we know they’ll keep rocking it in 2015 and beyond!
Drum roll please…Animal Farm Foundation is thrilled to (formally) announce our new collaboration with the Dutchess County SPCA in Hyde Park, New York!
This new addition to our programs here at AFF has been underway for a number of months, but we can finally spill the beans. Working with the DCSPCA is an exciting investment in our local animal shelter and our community here in New York State.
For years, we’ve collaborated with the DCSPCA informally, but in 2014, the two organizations saw an opportunity to come together to meet both of our missions for the benefit of pets and people in our area.
As many of you know, AFF travels around the country speaking at conferences and doing on-site shelter consultations and presentations. These are excellent springboards for change, but we have to admit – we’re excited about the opportunity for the long term work that we can do by investing some of our resources in our local shelter.
By working side by side with the DCSPCA, we’re able to dig in deep, problem solve as challenges arise, and empower this fantastic organization to move forward into a brighter future for our community.
The DCSPCA is a limited admissions shelter just 40 minutes away from Animal Farm Foundation. As they geared up for some major changes in 2014, including moving into a new Adoption and Education Center facility, we were happy for the chance to collaborate with the new leadership, Executive Director Jackie Rose, and their hardworking staff, in order to support them in meeting their mission and vision for companion animals in our community.
The Mission and Vision of Dutchess County SPCA: We rescue, shelter, and secure permanent homes for adoptable companion animals; advocate for the highest standards of animal care; and enforce animal cruelty laws throughout Dutchess County. We envision a community in which there are caring, compassionate, respectful relationships between humans and animals, and all adoptable animals have loving homes.
We recognized that by collaborating with the DCSPCA, we would be able to not only help to meet their mission and ours – to secure equal treatment and opportunity for “pit bull” dogs – but that we would also be able to move closer to AFF’s long term vision in which ALL animals are recognized as individuals and equally valued. With missions that complement each other, the collaboration was a perfect fit!
Today, AFF staff members are on site daily, assisting DCSPCA staff as they implement an array of new approaches to saving lives and caring for shelter pets. For example, under the direction of Bernice Clifford, our Director of Behavior and Training, members of our canine enrichment team are on site at the DCSPCA 7 days a week to help facilitate dog play groups during cleaning hours.
The dogs at the DCSPCA have always been treated as individuals (no breed-based blanket policies here!), but with the addition of more enrichment and regular play groups, the dogs are now more comfortable, mentally and physically, during their time at the shelter. Staff at the DCSPCA are also enjoying learning the ropes of play groups and are doing a fantastic job of implementing this new life saving tool!
And we’re not just lending a hand with the dogs. AFF and the DCSPCA have put their heads together to increase cat adoptions and implement enrichment programs for the felines as well. AFF staff members are on site helping with adoption counseling for both cats and dogs these days, and the organization has recently moved to a conversation-driven, open adoption process.
Caitlin Quinn, our Director of Operations, has been working closely with the staff at the DCSPCA on marketing, communications, and policy updates. Recently both organizations teamed up with local photographers from HeARTs Speak for a photo shoot to help show off the fabulous pets available for adoption. We’ve also helped facilitate a total rebranding, complete with a new logo and focus on the joy and excitement that adopting a new pet brings to each family.
What does this mean for the dogs at our shelter here at AFF? We’re still taking in “pit bull” dogs from all over the country including cruelty situations, such as dog fighting busts. The difference now is that some of our kennels are temporary home to dogs (of all kinds) from the DCSPCA who need behavioral or medical support not available to them in the other facility. In exchange, the DCPSCA has been kind enough to host some of AFF’s shelter dogs on their adoption floor, which is much busier than our own small, rural shelter. The dogs are benefiting from having two locations and new potential adopters coming their way.
If you’re interested in adopting a dog from either group, we encourage you to fill out online adoption survey and we’d be happy to match you with your next family member. Additionally, our granting and education programs are still going strong.
Nothing is ending at AFF, we’re just diversifying!
With the animals and staff recently relocated to the brand new building – the official grand opening was 11/14 – we’ll continue to work together to empower the DCSPCA staff to be the best shelter they can be for our community!
AFF’s Free Adoption and Marketing Resources For Shelters + Rescues
Every October, groups around the country host a variety of “Pit Bull Awareness” events. These are positive, educational events. However, we know that language shapes how we perceive the world and, as animal welfare evolves, it’s important that we occasionally stop and take a critical look at how we frame “pit bull” dogs with our words.
So now seems like the right time to ask: How do we influence public perceptions of “pit bull” dogs when we ask people to be “aware” of them? Does this inspire them to adopt or think differently or does it continue to frame “pit bull” dogs as different than other dogs or a problem (“we have too many of them!”) that needs to be fixed?
Since Pit Bull Awareness Day began nearly a decade ago, there has been tremendous progress for “pit bull” dogs and the issues that affect their families. The simple truth is that, thanks to the tireless work of advocates over the past couple of decades, today things are truly better for the dogs labeled “pit bulls.”
For example, a decade ago, many animal shelters maintained discriminatory policies which banned any dog labeled “pit bull” from their adoption floors. Or, the dogs labeled “pit bull” were allowed on the adoption floor (sometimes a special locked section!), but only available to adopt under heavy blanket restrictions.
Today, as we travel around the country working with animal welfare organizations, we want you to know that these kinds of shelter breed bans and blanket policies are now the exception to the rule.
Do some shelters still implement policy based on breed labels? You bet. But the numbers are fading fast. Things are getting better every day for “pit bull” dogs at shelters.
A decade ago, “pit bull” dogs rescued from dog fighting operations were routinely held as evidence then euthanized, without evaluation.
Today, these victims of cruelty are recognized as individuals. Around the country, law enforcement and humane agencies are working together to serve the victims of these crimes. Increasingly, the dogs are receiving fair evaluations and the opportunity for adoption.
Furthermore, we now recognize that the overwhelming majority of “pit bull” dogs in our shelter system and communities have never been exposed to dog fighting.
A decade ago Breed Specific Legislation was on the rise and many communities were implementing poorly researched, ineffective, and discriminatory laws that banned any dog that was identified as a “pit bull”, regardless of the arbitrary label.
Today, BSL is on the decline with communities rejecting and repealing BSL at a higher rate than they’re passing it. Nearly 20 states have passed BSL pre-emptions at the state level.
Are there still communities that ban “pit bull” dogs? You bet. We still have work to do to ensure that every town, in every state, passes fair, effective laws that focus on responsible ownership, not breed or physical appearance. But have no doubt about it, we’re winning this battle.
In short, major changes have happened since Pit Bull Awareness Day began and the changes are for the better!
Today we know that the public is open to adopting “pit bull” dogs and, in many shelters, there is no delay in sending “pit bull” dogs home. The public wants to adopt them. The “only 1 in 600 pit bulls find a home” myth has been busted.
Today we have the scientific research and studies that document that all dogs, including “pit bull” dogs, are individuals. There is a far greater understanding of the fact that physical appearance and breed labels are not accurate predictors of behavior.
Today, we have statements from The White House to the AVMA to the American Bar Association stating their opposition to BSL.
Today the media is peppered with positive, accurate stories of “pit bull” dogs who contribute to our families and communities and win awards, as well as those who simply share their lives with the families who love them.
Perhaps it’s time, given all the changes in the past few years, to refresh how we talk about “pit bull” dogs every October so that it reflects how far we’ve come and invites the public to get in on the fun!
“Pit bull” dog advocates have done an amazing job of raising awareness about the unfair treatment and misinformation surrounding these dogs. And there is much work to be done in the years to come. But the successes are just too great to ignore.
We need to allow the wonderful progress that’s been made to influence our approach to how we talk about the dogs and the way we engage in public education.
So, as we continue to educate and work for fair shelter polices, non-discriminatory laws, housing, and insurance for “pit bull” dogs and their families, let’s invite the public to join us in the positive direction we’re already moving in.
2014 is a good time to reframe the way we call the public’s attention to “pit bull” dogs and their families every October. Rather than using this time to lament struggles, ring alarms, or ask for sympathy, we can shift the focus to how wonderful life is when we share it with our pets, including “pit bull” dogs. Let’s ask the public to join us in Pit Bull Celebration Days!